Smiling came easy to Kyla Hall.

Even though she had suffered grievous injuries in the first two months of her life, the good-natured child always greeted visitors with a grin and a quick flash of baby teeth.

Case workers assigned to check on the welfare of the 1-year-old, who loved watching TV and giggling at SpongeBob SquarePants and company, said she endeared herself to everyone around her.

Kyla was removed from her Jacksonville parents' custody after allegations of child abuse, and her early childhood was a cavalcade of doctors and nurses. But it looked like some semblance of stability was headed her way when she was reunited with her father in December 2007. The Florida Department of Children and Families closed its file on her after six months of supervision.

She was dead five months later from a blow that was devastating enough to tear a hole in her tiny heart, and her father was charged in her slaying.

Representatives from Jewish Family and Community Services, an agency subcontracted by Children and Families to monitor Kyla's well-being, told the Times-Union they opposed reuniting the father with his daughter. But that recommendation was ultimately overruled, and Kyla's case stayed shut.

Until her death.

Beginning of abuse

The abuse was first documented March 2, 2007.

Kyla's parents, 22-year-old Ashley M. Saffore and 24-year-old Josi M. Hall, took her to Wolfson Children's Hospital about two months after she was born. The infant's left arm had begun twitching uncontrollably, and she couldn't keep her formula down, according to police records. An MRI confirmed she had subdural bleeding in her head consistent with steady bouts of trauma. Further examination revealed Kyla's wrists, legs and left foot were fractured due to repetitive abuse.

The injuries were severe enough to cause brain damage, which explained the seizures, and warranted the intervention of police and child-abuse specialists. But the only explanation Hall provided was that Kyla might have been injured when she was placed in her car seat.

Mariah Smith, a family friend who baby-sat Kyla for about a month before her March hospital visit, said she always suspected there was something wrong. Kyla didn't seem as developed as other babies she looked after and sometimes had unexplained bruises. But Smith said she didn't want to assume any wrongdoing because she isn't a doctor.

"She slept just about the whole day and never cried," Smith, 26, said. "I took her out in the sun one day, and she had this weird kind of gloss over her eyes. She never looked right."

Hall and Saffore were charged with child abuse and neglect about a month after their daughter was admitted to the hospital.

Assistant State Attorney Pamela Hazel, who was in charge of their prosecution, said she couldn't prove beyond a reasonable doubt which parent hurt the child, and all charges were dropped.

Since the criminal prosecution didn't stick, the parents were given a window to get their daughter back, according to records obtained by the Times-Union.

Path to reunification

Kyla was released from the hospital March 14, 2007, and placed in medical-foster care. She required occupational and physical therapy and needed regular doses of phenobarbital, a barbiturate used to treat epilepsy, according to court documents. Children and Families, Jewish Family and Community Services and Family Support Services initially suggested Hall and Saffore should have their parental rights terminated and Kyla should be adopted.

Agency records said her "home situation presents a substantial and immediate danger to the child's physical mental or emotional health and safety." The termination of their parental rights was in the "best interests of the child," and another round of abuse was imminent if she was kept in their care.

But things changed on July 5, 2007, when Saffore terminated her parental rights.

Saffore was unavailable for comment, and the lawyer who handled the termination hearing didn't return calls. Smith said her friend told her she regretted giving up Kyla.

Octavia Brown, a lawyer representing Children and Families, said in an e-mail sent to Jewish Family and Community Services case workers and obtained by the Times-Union that Saffore was likely the "perpetrator" behind Kyla's abuse but didn't elaborate further. She said she wasn't willing to offer a chance at reunification to Saffore but didn't object to giving the father an opportunity if he was "more cooperative." Spokesman John Harrell declined to comment on whether Saffore's decision to forfeit custody helped expedite Hall's reunification with Kyla.

With the mother out of the picture, Hall was free to apply for sole custody.

He attended 10 child guidance and parenting courses and underwent a psychological evaluation to determine competency. He consented to a polygraph test that indicated he had no knowledge of Kyla's abuse before her trip to the hospital.

The group of child-protection agencies eventually altered its recommendation from adoption to reunification with the father in August 2007, and Hall was legally entitled since there were no criminal charges holding him back. Kyla was removed from medical-foster care and eventually placed with Hall's mother so he could interact with the child.

Colleen Rodriguez, chief programs officer for Jewish Family and Community Services, said her agency granted Hall supervised time with Kyla for multiple four-hour sessions. But she didn't agree with the speed at which reunification was granted.

"The amount of post-placement supervision should have been extended," she said. "Instead of just four hours of supervised contact, we could have increased that to eight hours or overnight visitation and ultimately been with him for more time."

The Jewish Family and Community Services recommendation to keep Kyla with her grandmother was overruled by General Magistrate Lester Bass after the guardian ad litem volunteer said the child was "progressing beautifully" with her father, according to a report filed Nov. 15, 2007.

Kyla went back to live with her father Dec. 3, 2007.

Short-lived reunion

Case workers visited Hall's home 22 times over a six-month period to verify Kyla's well-being. Most of the reports describe her as alert and lively and edging toward consistent verbal communication.

But one of the visitation reports said Hall's mother raised concerns her son had been speaking with Kyla's mother. A stipulation of Saffore's agreement to terminate her parental rights was that she was to have no contact with her daughter. Hall's rights to the child were forfeited if he allowed Saffore access to Kyla, according to court records.

The visitation report said "the father could be influenced by the mother because he does love her and wants his family to be together." No other references to Saffore were included in any other reports. Rodriguez said multiple unannounced visits were conducted, and no evidence of the mother's presence was noted.

But Smith said Saffore might have had contact with Kyla. She said a few months after Saffore's parental rights were revoked, she left a message on Smith's MySpace profile asking her to baby-sit the child.

The last agency visit was June 5, 2008. Kyla seemed in good spirits and healthy, so her case was closed after the standard six-month supervision period.

She was killed two months before her second birthday in the home she shared with her father. An autopsy report said she sustained a tear in her heart and internal damage to her liver through blunt-force trauma. Hall was charged with second-degree murder and remains in the Duval County jail.

His lawyer, Lee Locket, said it's impossible to determine Hall was responsible for the fatal blow.

"This is a 100 percent circumstantial case, there are no witnesses to what happened, and the case is based on conjecture," he said.

Assistant State Attorney Alan Mizrahi said he likely won't need evidence from the 2007 child-abuse investigation to prove his case.

"This one stands on its own," he said.

Rodriguez said her agency is investigating "all aspects of the case" to determine whether a breach in protocol or oversight might have put Kyla at risk.

"So far we've found that good case work was done here," she said. "It's a tragedy how she died, but we did everything in our power to protect her."

matt.coleman@jacksonville.com, (904) 359-4654